At this moment, I’m on a long-awaited trip to Europe with my sister. We’re no youngsters, but we're certainly not elderly by any stretch. As we begin our six-day walking tour of the beautiful Cotswolds, I’m filled with gratitude that both my sister and I are physically fit and able to do this together. I know it won’t always be this way.
Aging is a fact that most of us don’t want to face. By accepting and planning for our (or our parents’) inevitable fragility, we can make life a whole lot easier down the road—especially when that road isn’t paved as smoothly as we would like!
Decide who will be in charge
Meredith is in her late 80s, and she has some significant signs of dementia. But now that she really needs help, she is too childlike and forgetful to know it. She refuses to trust anyone—her children, her sister, her doctors, or her financial advisor—and has decided to stay in her house alone until “I go out feet first.” The financial and emotional pressure on her family is huge.
One of the most important things you can do early on is decide who will be in charge when things start to shift. Deciding where, when, and how to live only gets more difficult, which is why it’s vital to make smart, deliberate choices before any serious decline makes doing so even more difficult—if not impossible. To build trust and ensure a smoother transition, decide who will be in charge early on, and sidestep any disagreements in the future by making it legal. Get a Healthcare Power of Attorney that gives someone else the power to make medical decisions based on your wishes, as well as a Durable Power of Attorney that gives someone else the legal authority to manage your finances when (not if!) you’re mentally or physically unable to do so.
Explore housing options.
When Mark was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, he and Judy wanted to keep things simple by staying in their own home, but they both failed to accept how quickly his health would deteriorate. By the time they moved to a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) last spring, the disruption caused Mark’s symptoms to accelerate.
Senior housing is a conundrum. While there’s often an emotional desire to stay at home, physical and mental limitations that come with age often make staying put a challenge. Even if cost isn’t an issue (though it often is), how long does it make sense to live alone—or at home with a partner who is disabled? When is the right time to move? And to where? There are many options available, including those that are pretty well known—independent living facilities, CCRCs, and assisted living communities—as well as some lesser known options such as co-housing and naturally-occurring retirement communities (NORCs). To learn more about the options that are out there, see my blog House hunting seniors: Finding the right option for optimal living.
Plan for the costs of aging.
Michael was a lifelong athlete, and any doctor would have predicted that he’d live a long, healthy life. Even so, to be sure his income was protected, he bought disability insurance when he was in his 50s, “just in case.” It was one of the best decisions he could have made. Michael suffered a spinal cord injury when he was in his late 60s, and the policy has paid for his care and comfort ever since. Without the policy, the impact on his finances—and his family—would have been devastating.
According to the California Partnership for Long-Term Care, nearly half of people aged 65 and older who go into a nursing home will spend between $94,900 for just one year of care, and just under $500,000 for 5 years of care. Nearly 12% will face even higher costs. There are various options to help cover these costs, including insurance policies (life, health, disability, and long-term care), health savings accounts (HSAs) that use pre-tax dollars to invest for long-term medical expenses, and retirement savings. Talk to a financial advisor to create a plan that suits your needs (even those you can’t anticipate). From monitoring cash flow, determining how and when available assets will be used, and ensuring the person in charge of your Durable Power of Attorney has all the information and access he or she needs, a trusted financial advisor can help put every piece of the puzzle in the right place at the right time.
Agree on when to stop driving.
The hardest thing I had to do when my husband Ed became disabled was take away his car keys. I knew he’d be angry, so I secretly notified the DMV that he needed testing. Of course, he knew it was me who busted him, but I had no choice; I knew he was putting himself and others in danger every time he got behind the wheel. Even after his license had been revoked, I had to park the car away from our home so he wouldn’t be tempted to “just take a short little drive.” He hated losing his independence. Who could blame him?
Decide now how driving ability will be determined (and not by the senior!). AARP offers a Smart Driver Course for drivers over 50, as well as an online seminar to help talk to seniors about driving ability—or lack thereof. And, of course, there’s the DMV, as well as a family doctor who may be the first to recommend that a senior turn in his or her keys. By agreeing to an objective third-party decision maker before the time comes, no one has to feel like the bad guy, and everyone will be safer on the road.
It’s time to face the facts: we’re all getting older, and with age come change. Take the time to make some of these key decisions now, and that path will be much smoother when the time comes. Perhaps even more importantly, get help with the choices that matter most. Talk to your doctor about any changes in your health. Talk to your financial advisor about how to plan for future expenses. Websites focused on elder care and groups like AARP and the Alzheimer’s Association can also offer valuable support and guidance. For more information on getting the right help at the right time, see my blog When all feels lost, it’s time to find your A-team.